“I say the universe speaks to us, always, first in whispers. And a whisper in your life usually feels like ‘hmm, that’s odd.’ Or, ‘hmm, that doesn’t make any sense.’ Or, ‘hmm, is that right?’ It’s that subtle. And if you don’t pay attention to the whisper, it gets louder and louder and louder. I say it’s like getting thumped upside the head. If you don’t pay attention to that, it’s like getting a brick upside your head. You don’t pay attention to that—the brick wall falls down. That is the pattern that I see in my life and so many other people’s lives. And so, I ask people, ‘What are the whispers? What’s whispering to you now?'” — Oprah

Not long ago, I met a woman who’s life reminded me of this quote from Oprah.  I always wondered what would happen if something really drastic happened in my life.  How would that impact me?  What would I do about it?  Would I be smart enough to change what needed changing?  Would I be brave enough to ask for the lesson?  Would I be awake enough to listen?  After hearing Sandra’s story, I had a little more insight as to what that might look and feel like.  Through her story, I came to appreciate listening to the thump, and not waiting for the brick wall.

This is Sandra’s story, and this is what she taught me:

Finding Purpose:

I used to save money for my retirement, and felt it was important to set myself up financially.  Now, this new career allows me to focus on what legacy I’m leaving behind.  I get to be more thoughtful about what I’m doing, and I get to change people’s lives.

Key Lesson:

I learned that I was much more resilient than I thought I was.  I learned that sometimes things don’t work out, but something else will come along and in the end everything will work out just fine.

Definition of Success:

I’ll know I’m successful when I feel like the expert.  I want to know I am respected, acknowledged and people can come to me for answers.

It didn’t occur to her something was really wrong.  Waking up with a monstrous, migraine-like headache wasn’t enough to slow this hardworking, ambitious, professional down.  The thought of going to the hospital was fleeting, and replaced with her attributing the pain to stress and the need for a vacation.  After all, she never called in sick.  Given she was close to a long weekend, she felt she could work through the pain, and even continue her regular fitness routines.  Signs like being unable to button her blouse, being exhausted all the time, and driving in a fog-like state didn’t do much more to convince her to seek treatment.  It wasn’t until 5 days later, when her speech was altered and she stumbled into a door frame, that she finally went to her doctor.  Fully assuming she would be in and out of the doctor’s office quickly, she assured her co-workers she would be right back.  Failing sobriety tests and losing balance when her eyes were closed, concerned her physician enough to send her for a CAT scan.  Still in full denial, she drove herself to the hospital without telling anyone.  And then, came the news.  It was the moment she called to tell her husband she might have a brain tumour, when it finally broke through.  Unable to say the words out loud, she broke down and sobbed.

An out of town visit to the closest neurosurgeon clarified that Sandra did not have a brain tumour, but a life-threatening brain bleed.  Since the surgery to fix such a bleed was also life-threatening, the only thing to do was admit her and hope the medications would subside the swelling and cause the brain to reabsorb the bleed.  The next several days her symptoms worsened as she lost the ability to walk and lift her arm.  Cognitively intact, and convincing herself she was fine, she used her still functioning thumbs and her Blackberry to keep working and answering emails, from her hospital bed.  It would be another 5 days before her symptoms started to dissipate and they released her to recover at home.  So back home she went, with little more than hope, that everything would resolve on its own from that point forward.

Anxious to start physiotherapy and get back to her normal life, Sandra immediately went to work trying to relearn how to walk and lift her arm.  Within eight weeks she was back working part-time, but left three weeks later due to constant exhaustion.  Feeling physically better the moment she was off work played havoc on her emotions as she struggled with feeling like a failure.  This was the first time it dawned on her that she might not ever be able to return to work.  Knowing there must be a lesson in the experience, she worked hard to figure out what her life was trying to tell her.  Why, at the young age of 48, was this happening?  What did it all mean?  What was she suppose to do with her life?

One day, she repeatedly wrote the words speak, teach and train, on a piece of paper.  These were things she loved to do, and felt some connection with her future.  Having an entrepreneur for a husband had not been enough to entice her to work for herself, so she immediately thought she was meant to do those things for her company.  Perhaps upon her return she could look for work in other departments.  Thirty years of steady work and steady pay, being well respected and an expert in her field, were things she valued about her job.  She felt successful in her job, and it never occurred to her to do anything else.  And yet, days after she wrote down those 3 words, she awoke with an “ah-ha” moment.  In that moment she knew she was going to work for herself, renovate her basement, and open up her own personal training company.  For years, she had a strong passion for fitness, and it had been suggested she take that passion and make a business out of it.  That idea finally felt right.

With a clear picture and a new plan in place, Sandra was finally ready to return to work.  She figured she could start building her expertise and get her business ready in her spare time as she returned to the corporate world.  It made financial sense to return and wait a potential severance package that might come with a impending restructuring.  Returning to work served another purpose in Sandra’s transition from corporate world to following her passion.  Upon returning, she started to understand how the stress and workload of her job played a role in her illness.  As the company changed around her, she found she had less autonomy and it seemed her expertise was not as valued.  It was as if her life was speaking to her again.  All the things she loved about her job were starting to change, and there were signs everywhere that it was a great time to leave.  She finally left her corporate job, just over a year later, and opened the personal training business full time.

One of the most surprising comments Sandra made during our interview was how she realized being sick was one of the happiest times of her life.  This seemed sad to me, until she explained herself more fully.  There was a sort of euphoria she felt about being alive, and a greater sense of gratitude, that can only come from experiencing a life-threatening condition.  At the same time, she had the perspective of understanding what life looked like without all the pressure and stress that came with her job.  She started to appreciate things she had once hated, like cooking.  Finding the time to do different things, and learning how to do them, made them more enjoyable.  Spending time with her children and just relaxing with movies or books was a gift she had never allowed herself.  Being happy with her job and her success, she had never stopped to think about what other things she might be missing.

When I asked her what she gets to do in her new job that she didn’t before, she is quick to answer.  She has learned what gives her energy and what drains it, and makes a conscious decision to spend time connecting with friends, networking and socializing.  There is more freedom, flexibility and fun working for herself.  It is not without its challenges, and she is just as quick to point some of these out for me as well.  Having a team of support people to help her do all of the things she wasn’t as strong in, is one of the things she misses.  Becoming an expert in her new field has been her biggest challenge, and consequently is her yard stick for success.  I find her attitude about success refreshing.  She has this great energy and self-confidence that lets you know she has the appetite and perseverance to make it.  Unlike many of the people I interview, her definition of success hasn’t changed that much over the years.  Striving to be the best at what she does, to be the expert, is an admirable trait.  Added to the fact that she now aims to positively change people’s lives in the expression of that expertise, is even more admirable.

As I consider the challenges of transitioning from the corporate world to entrepreneurism, against the challenges of fighting back from a life-threatening condition that leaves you temporarily unable to walk or speak properly, I can’t help feeling grateful.  There is a lesson to be learned from Sandra’s experience, and I’m not willing to wait for the brick wall to fall on me before I learn it.  We don’t know what life has in store for us.  We don’t know if we will wake up tomorrow unable to walk, or whether we’ll wake up at all.  Sandra was lucky enough to recover, and has a second chance to define how she spends her time.  She found her fabulous life, and has been courageous enough to continue pursuing her passions.

Finding fabulous is all about evaluating all aspects of your life, and choosing to live to the fullest.  It’s about leaving jobs, people or situations behind that no longer serve us.  It’s about going after that dream, no matter how scary it seems.  Take a lesson from this resilient, courageous lady, and don’t wait for life’s proverbial brick to hit you upside the head.  Go find your fabulous life, and start really living!